PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday faced intensified protests and accusations of anti-democratic behaviour after pushing through a contentious pension reform without a parliamentary vote.
Using a special constitutional power to pass legislation without a vote amounted to an admission that the government lacked a majority to hike the retirement age from 62 to 64, a change which has met strong resistance across the country.
The Senate had adopted the bill earlier Thursday, but reluctance by right-wing opposition MPs in the National Assembly to side with Macron meant the government faced defeat in the lower house.
“We can’t take the risk of seeing 175 hours of parliamentary debate come to nothing,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told MPs as she announced the move amid jeers and boos from opposition MPs, who also sang the national anthem.
Aurelien Pradie, an MP with right-wing opposition party the Republicans, said the government’s move ran “the risk of a democratic rupture in this country”.
“We have a problem of democracy. This law – which will change the lives of the French – has been adopted without the slightest vote at the National Assembly,” Pradie told BFM TV.
Trains, schools, public services and ports have since January been affected by strikes against the proposed reform, amid some of the biggest protests in decades.
A rolling strike by municipal garbage collectors in Paris has caused about 7,000 tonnes of trash to pile up in the streets, attracting rats and dismaying tourists.
On Thursday, thousands gathered outside parliament to protest the government’s move.
“I’m outraged by what’s happening. I feel like I’m being cheated as a citizen,” said Laure Cartelier, a 55-year-old teacher.
“In a democracy, it should have happened through a vote.”
Macron faces ‘moment of truth’ as French pension reform goes to vote
At around 8:00 pm (1900 GMT), police used tear gas and water cannon to clear protesters after a fire was lit in the centre of the historic Place de la Concorde.
Even after the rally was dispersed, some protesters started fires and caused damage to shop fronts on side streets, according to AFP reporters.
By 11:30 pm, Paris police said 217 people had been arrested on suspicion of seeking to cause damage.
Similar scenes unfolded across France. Several stores were looted during protests in Marseille while clashes between protesters and security forces also erupted in the western cities of Nantes and Rennes as well as Lyon in the southeast, according to AFP correspondents.
Trade unions and political analysts had warned that adopting the legislation without a vote – by invoking article 49.3 of the constitution – risked radicalising opponents and would undercut the law’s democratic legitimacy.
“It’s a total failure for the government,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen told reporters. “From the beginning, the government fooled itself into thinking it had a majority.”
According to polls, two-thirds of French people oppose the pension overhaul.
Some opposition parties including Le Pen’s are set to call a vote of no confidence in the centrist government on Friday, but Borne’s cabinet is expected to survive, thanks to backing from the Republicans.
Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the Fondation Jean-Jaures think tank, told AFP that enacting such an important law without a parliamentary vote risked further antagonising the country and deepening anti-Macron sentiment.
Opinion polls showed that roughly eight out of 10 people opposed legislating in this way, while a growing number of people were losing faith in French democracy, he said.
With tensions rising, head of the ruling faction in parliament Aurore Berge wrote to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin to ask him to ensure the protection of MPs, according to a letter seen by AFP.
‘Future of the country’
After trying and failing to push through a pension reform during his first term, Macron returned to the issue while campaigning for re-election last April.
But he lost his parliamentary majority in June after elections for the National Assembly.
Despite the day of high drama, Macron made no public comment on the matter Thursday.
“You cannot play with the future of the country,” he told a closed-door cabinet meeting Thursday morning as he justified the move, according to a participant.
The political implications of forcing through a reform opposed by most of the population are uncertain.
The head of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, warned this week that Macron risked “giving the keys” of the presidency to Le Pen at the next election in 2027, when Macron will be constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.